I’m currently as inoculated as I’ve ever been against all manner of disease through a series of Honeymoon injections administered in May this year, and not wanting to waste this fact on our next holiday, we scoured the malaria and rabies world hotspots, with special points awarded for a high stray dog count and any sort of lackadaisical approach to locking up cows championed, especially around busy village roads. We seriously considered Kerala in India but the flight connections were beyond horrendous before we eventually settled on Sri Lanka, the fact an actual proper war had only recently ended didn’t deter us tells you just how bad the flights to Kerala really were.
Anyone heading to Sri Lanka, an island off the southern tip of India known as “the teardrop” or “the pearl” depending on who you ask, will undoubtedly have to encounter a naysayer or two condemning your jaunt as certainly doomed to mother nature’s natural fury in one way or another, and you explain politely that The Tsunami was years ago and life is returning to its former confidence amongst tourists, with the two-week prices being amazingly reasonable for 4 or 5 star All Inclusive holidays available in October from 700 each and raising as the season gets going, we confirmed our arrangements through Tripadvisor favourite Mercury Direct and all was happy in the world.
48 hours before we departed, the Samoan Islands, which are far away, sunny and beach-like, were hit by a Tsunami, and all the naysayers were beating a path to our doors to say “I told you so!” Smugly, I informed them that Samoa was all the way round the other side of the world. Idiots.
24 hours before departure, and Mother Nature clearly had the right hump about something because there was another Tsunami, this time in Malaysia and Indonesia. A bit closer, in fact, exactly where we’d been in May, but unperturbed, and slightly wanting to prove people wrong, we strode on with our holiday plans and arrived at Heathrow’s recently face-lifted Terminal 3 ready for our indirect flights to Colombo, via Doha.
The flight itself was lengthy but uneventful; Qatar Airways being our airline, the mysteriously located Doha stopover was a welcome opportunity to stretch our legs, albeit for only 30 minutes between landing and departing again.
Colombo airport is nothing much to write home about, with the exception of their inspired duty free zone in arrivals.
Duty free shops are usually a supplier of last minute forgotten items like plug adapters or the like, but not in Colombo. Ever arrived at your destination airport, patted yourself down in a mild panic, checked all your bags and realised you’ve forgotten that most important of travel accompaniments, the 1990’s washing machine?
Well worry not intrepid travellers, for there are five shops on this airport concourse from where you can select a 1000 spinner, and for carrying it to your transfer coach, simply make use of one of the abundance of men in orange vests who will effectively demand to carry your luggage, or push your trolley, whether you want them to or not, and if you don’t, they’ll stand next to you, talking weather and cricket until you change your mind, or venture to board the bus and they’re there once more to load any of your bags into any boot, and shamelessly then ask for a tip from the tired, slightly bemused travellers who don’t yet fully understand the currency exchange and handover hundreds of rupees.
Sri Lanka operates a mysterious closed currency system, meaning changing money in the UK is virtually impossible for any amount larger than 35, and so all cash exchanges are done either in the airport lobby from men in kiosks who compete for exchange business like excitable Wall Street traders, or at your hotel reception.
We heard from others before we left that the best rates were to be had at the airport, so I duly handed over 250 and received 43,500 rupees in return in one of my favourite ever exchanges, which worked out at 173LKR to the 1, I soon learned never to take advice from these people when the hotel were advertising an exchange of 184LKR. Incidentally, there are ATM machines in the larger towns, but the maximum you can withdraw in one transaction is around 100, and the ATM’s are located in telephone box-esque structures, were swamped with mosquitoes, and always had a long queue outside with local people with their trousers tucked in their socks and the occasional unsuspecting western tourist in vest, shorts and flip-flop.
Feeling slightly tip-mugged but finally on our transfer coach, the bright blue skies of our arrival had been replaced as dusk approached with angry looking clouds, and then the rain came down. Oh the rain came down.
October is generally accepted as the worst month to travel to Sri Lanka, as the islands complicated intra-monsoon seasons are supposed to bring persistent showers on a daily basis.
We’d experienced this sort of thing in Borneo, and quickly learnt that it rained around lunchtime and then again at 4pm, a lot of rain, but only for a minute or two before the sun returned to dry everything in even less time, so they were actually welcomed, but this rain didn’t stop. It came down in sheets and the entire 2 hour journey across 38km to our resort of Wadduwa was essentially an underwater introduction on the dark on roads that were at best chaotic, and at worst upside down and sideways on. At one point, after taking a diversion to avoid a flooded town road, we drove past a local commuter bus that had somehow stranded itself on the muddy central reservation, and had this been Milton Keynes, there would be a frantic telephone call and a collectively miffed wait for rescue, but the way in Sri Lanka is the passengers all get off, and together they push.
They achieved nothing but getting wet and muddy, but at least they tried. It was quite a big bus.
We were staying at The Blue Water Hotel, a large but not overbearing building right on the beach and we’d gone All Inclusive, to take the thinking out of where we’d be eating. The rooms were large and spacious enough, with all the usual bits like TV with amazingly foreign channels and BBC World, hairdryers in the bathroom, oddly placed plug sockets, air conditioning, ceiling fan and every room enjoyed a sea view and a spectacular sunset as an added bonus.
Down for breakfast the next day and we were delighted to find waffles, cereals, breads and fruits, especially as they were primarily obscured by rice, curries, and weird stuff. Sri Lankans love a bit of rice, and a typical family will get through several kilos a week having variations of type for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, tea, supper, and for all those snacking bits in between. I’m not Sri Lankan, so therefore rice once a day for the rice is plenty enough rice for me thankyouricerymuch.
There was no sign of the previous day’s downpour and the blue skies of our first day remained for the entirety of our stay, so raspberries to the Met office who had been forecasting torrential rain on a daily basis.
We’d arrived on a Saturday night, and on the Sunday morning I added a second combination of bodily movements to the things-it-is-impossible-to-do-at-the-same-time box. Alongside being impossible to laugh and run at the same time, I now know that it is also impossible to be astounded whilst chewing.
There’s an actual elephant over there.
In the hotel grounds. Just standing there. Next to a man. With a stick. Oh. I get it.
This elephant lived at a local temple, was enigmatically named Monica and every Sunday she would be taken for a walk along the beach, and brilliantly, a bath in the pool of a hotel just down the road. Brilliant partly because you can go and watch, but mostly because it wasn’t our own huge hotel pool and therefore I wasn’t playing water polo in some sort of elephant soup.
Later in the holiday we would visit an elephant sanctuary and see the much happier lives of over 50 elephants rescued from illness or injury which would add melancholy to the second Sunday of our holiday that Monica slowly ambled into view.
The Evening meals were pretty similar in appearance to the breakfasts, but at this time of day I was more willing to risk a curry, and after receiving solid assurances from the chefs that my selections weren’t too spicy hot, I sat down and proceeded to fill my mouth with liquid magma with chilli sauce. I came close to drinking the water out of the table decorations but the waiters were a step ahead and plonked down a bottle of water that just simply didn’t help. Dear lord they like a bit of hot food here too. I took to using my wife as a taste tester for future mealtimes. Handy.
Three days into some hardcore sunbathing and we’d developed itchy feet borne through talking to the collection of beach boys who linger on the beach by the edge of the hotel, and talk of the history of the island and the things there are to do, our experiences of which will come later.
To scratch our itch instantaneously, we ventured out of the large gates of the hotel and hopped in an Auto – a 3 wheeled covered moped vehicle very similar to the Tuk-Tuk’s that monopolise Thailand’s islands, and for around 3 return we were taken at 20mph for the 10 minute ride along the busy (only) main road into Panadura, where the driver acted as a guide to show us pretty much what we could already see
“There’s the bank, there’s the market and there’s some shops. Not much else here.”
What he didn’t mention once was the crowd of people who were slowly gathering around us as we wandered through side streets lined with floor-stalls selling pineapples, fresh and salt-fish, and mobile phone top up.
The next helpfulness from the driver was to be wary of a man in black who will tell you he works for your hotel kitchen and offers to take you into local shops, only to then agree prices at quadruple the original value of whatever trinkets had caught your eye. We were warned of this man so often and by so many people that we became suspicious of absolutely everyone wearing black shirts, until we were approached by a man, wearing black, who told us he worked at our hotel and he had some things to show us. I just wanted to take his side in this conspiracy, take him into one of the tailors shops who offer to tailor you a new shirt for 10 and buy him some bright yellow clobber, just so that he could carry out his scam in disguise. Perhaps he has to wear a black shirt every day. Who knows?
One street we walked down, past a man proudly showing a catch of barracuda, was like something from Willy Wonka’s factory, as the further down the street I got, the lower and lower became the tarpaulin market tops that were strung together with ropes from one side of the street to the other, meaning I soon went from walking tall, to stooping, to bent double wishing I’d paid more attention to where these streets were going before I went down them.
On the way back to the hotel, you could see some of the leftover devastation caused by the Tsunami, particularly along the beach road, where before you weren’t able to see the sea, there are now long stretches of abandoned dwellings and slabs of concrete where there once houses. The government has banned new houses from being created within 150 metres of the shoreline, to limit the effects of any future Tsunami.
The locals, from the shopkeepers to the hotel staff to the Auto drivers were all gentle and welcoming and seemed genuinely pleased to see tourism returning to the country after a difficult period.
They were so friendly, they even saved Matthew Hoggard from drowning in the sea off the coast of our hotel some years ago and were very proud of sharing this fact, although the heartwarminess was lost when they then went on to list the names of all the Mr and Mrs Smiths who were now Just Mrs Smith, and Mr and Mrs Jones who was now just Mrs Jones. The sea was fairly rough with a strong undercurrent, so only the barmy really went out beyond waist deep. The wise took advantage of the massive pool, and hotel spa that gave amazing massages for a fraction of UK prices.
The country has an incredible amount to offer every sort of traveller, from the sort who want sun and beach, the golden sand of the beach by our hotel was deserted for miles in either direction, and for those looking for a little bit of the local life and some adventure to boot, there were 1, 2, 3 and 5 day excursions available to take you around the island and show a written history going back over 2000 years.
We chose a 3 day 2 night tour taking in loads of site and amongst them, one large rock, loads of elephants and an underwhelming bridge and all of that deserves space all of its own.
I cannot recommend the country highly enough if you are looking for some simple adventures or simple pleasures, both can be found here.